Wiggle Wiggle: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

By Tony Attwood

Now I must admit that when the suggestion came in that I should review Wiggle Wiggle I wondered if this was a serious suggestion.  This song has the reputation of being Dylan’s worst recorded piece.  And also I think I have only played it a few times, following the conventional wisdom that Red Sky was not an album I really wanted to know much about.

But I have made the offer on the home page: tell me what you want reviewed and I’ll do it.  And so with a gulp I started.

I should point out that my technique is to play the song over and over while writing about it, so that I can grasp the overall essence of the piece, and the fine detail.  (Sorry if that sounds horribly pretentious, but it’s what I do, whether I know the song very well, or hardly at all.)  Did I really want to play “Wiggle wiggle” twenty times in the next couple of hours?  Gulp again.

Looking back at it all, Red Sky was Dylan’s 27th studio album, which is three more than Elvis managed in his lifetime (although to be fair Mr Presley made a fair number of soundtrack albums).  So Dylan should have known what a studio album was all about by the time he reached this point.

And yes he’s made funny decisions on studio albums all through his life, like excluding Blind Willie McTell and Dignity, but listening to each of those you can see why.  Brilliant masterpieces though they are, each is slightly flawed, and one can imagine that Dylan wanted to perfect them before releasing them.  But Wiggle Wiggle?

It was released in 1990, after Oh Mercy which I have been reviewing of late and which contains some utter wonders.  And let’s not forget that in 1988 and 1990 Dylan recorded with the Travelling Wiburys – although that second Wilbury album came after Red Sky.

But the point is that volume 3 of the Wilburys includes the utterly consummate “Where were you last night?” and the dreadful “Wilbury Twist”.  Now of course “consummate” and “dreadful” are just my views, and I know that “Where were you” has been called a “formulaic pop song” but I heartily disagree.  I’ll go back to my review written a few years ago, and see if I can explain further.

However Wilbury Twist is shocking.  So was “Wiggle Wiggle” of the same ilk?  I certainly have thought so until now.  But…

As I listened again I wondered if I have been influenced as I guess many others have by the fact that “Red Sky” is dedicated to “Gabby Goo Goo”, (Dylan’s daughter).

Dylan has explained that he was working on the Wilburys at the same time – Heylin (who on this sort of issue is seemingly all-knowing) says no – Wilbury’s 3 came after Red Sky.  And was Dylan disillusioned with the recording industry, as it often quoted?  If yes, what was he doing making another Wilbury’s record?

Patrick Humphries, speaks of “sloppily written songs, lazily performed and unimaginatively produced.”  Of Wiggle Wiggle he says, “worse than anything Dylan has ever recorded? Maybe not that bad, but certainly up there, jostling for position in that particular part of hell, where the jukebox plays nothing but “Joey”.

Not everyone saw it that way, but maybe I was influenced by the negativists through having daughters aged 12, 10 and 7.  These days they are my dearest, closest friends, but back then they seemed to move regularly between angels and monsters as I tried to earn enough from my writing to keep the family together.  They didn’t like Wiggle Wiggle as I recall despite Time saying that it sounded, “like the theme song to one of those tripped-out television shows beloved by toddlers and drug users.”  

Maybe my daughters were just too old.

So, it’s a kiddies song, for a four year old.  Wiggle means “to move or cause to move up and down or from side to side with small rapid movements.”  Like my youngest grandchild today would did if I played her this.

But … no!  The words don’t fit, and nor does the music.  Those 16 beats at the start aren’t on the tonic, they are on the dominant. We hear a G chord 16 times and then hit C, which the song is recorded in.  You don’t start a kiddies song with such menace.

Then there’s the dominant bass.  A damn sight better playing than on Vision of Johanna (which has that horrible error in it from the bass), this is interesting and inventive from all the musicians.  Where the bass could have been just playing C, it plays C, B flat, F twice and then a variation in the third line.  Visions may have all the lyrical dexterity, but this has the accompaniment.

And there’s nothing wrong with Dylan’s singing at all – of course not, because on Wilbury’s 3 he is on top form.

So what makes us think this is bad?  I guess it is the lyrics – or rather just the word “wiggle”.  It is a child’s word – or a word applied to children.  He can’t be serious.

But still I come back and say, no, this is not a child’s song – not at all.  Just look at the lyrics…

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a gypsy queen
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle all dressed in green
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle ’til the moon is blue
Wiggle ’til the moon sees you

And apart from the interesting reversal of the moon seeing you, tell me why that is so bad when “Tutti Frutti, aw rooty Tutti Frutti, aw rooty A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom” is so good.  And remember as you answer that Tutti Frutti is Italian for “all the fruit” and it took three people (Little Richard Penniman,  LaBostrie and Lubin) to write it.

I think it is hard to listen to Wiggle Wiggle now without the prejudice of “worst Dylan song” etc etc.  But in reality it’s not, not at all.  It is full of life and vigour, and take out the word “wiggle” and it is a rock song.

And then start to listen to where those so derided lyrics go.

I’ve quoted Wiggle ’til the moon sees you.  What does that mean?  The moon seeing you probably refers to the moon supposedly influencing people’s behaviour.  There werewolf is the perfect example.  Thus you “wiggle” and the moon comes out, that bright yellow light hits you, and you change into something else.

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a swarm of bees
Wiggle on your hands and knees

Wiggle ’til it opens, wiggle ’til it shuts
Wiggle ’til it bites, wiggle ’til it cuts

Hang on, this is no kiddies song, this is getting nasty.  Maybe werewolves and vampires is the territory.

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a ton of lead
Wiggle—you can raise the dead

Now at this point we get an instrumental which is based on one chord – “raise the dead” when on chord all the way through until we get a repeat of the middle 8.  And then consider

Wiggle ’til you’re high, wiggle ’til you’re higher
Wiggle ’til you vomit fire
Wiggle ’til it whispers, wiggle ’til it hums
Wiggle ’til it answers, wiggle ’til it comes

So tell me what on earth is this if not a journey into some nightmare.  I am not sure what nightmare, and I am certainly not suggesting this is some great work of art but I am saying at this point I can’t make a judgement, because I am just bemused by the whole image.   I’ve got werewolves, vampires, and monsters vomiting fire.   Are we talking about the classic image of the Devil here?  Is this a song about temptation, or black magic?

Certainly if it is, I think it is a song that works.  The whole point of the notion of the Devil and temptation in Christian mythology is that the Devil is utterly devious.  He twists and turns trying to corrupt your soul.  He, one might say, wiggles.

Maybe, maybe not.  It’s a tenuous interpretation, but I would say this. It makes a hell of a lot more sense than the “song to his daughter” scenario.  If you had a young daughter would you sing her a song about vomiting fire?  I really don’t get that notion at all.

As for it being the worst Dylan song, no not for me.  It is a great bit of rock and roll music, the words are interesting and ultimately confusing (which is a Dylan trademark) and it has an excellent accompaniment throughout.  It is surprising, lively, and unexpected.

I can think of much that is far less interesting in the Dylan repertoire.  Indeed before the request for a review of this song came in I was about to have a bash at “Down along the cove” which to me is a very ordinary and rather dull 12 bar blues.

But then, each to his own.

Index to all the reviews on this site. 


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10 Responses to Wiggle Wiggle: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

  1. rw says:

    I’m the one to blame for this suggestions and I must say I think you have done quite well with it. It (the song) may all be nonsense but I don’t think so.

    This song feels like how things in life can be all seemingly fun and innocent but in little tiny ways (or tiny wiggles) the innocent becomes the not so innocent becomes the darn right evil. (like a big fat snake). Think how the mortgage crisis began and escalated. Or how an affair begins and escalates. The music is as disarming as the message.

    And then BANG with one more pop of the drums its done.

  2. Futzi says:

    Finally, a kindred soul who gets that Wiggle Wiggle is anything but a children’s song! Full of menace and horror. Now only if he had left in Slash’s solo!

  3. fontanaw says:

    I, for one, have enjoyed Wiggle Wiggle since I first had the pleasure to listen to it. It is a song which actually makes me want to dance to. In Dylan´s oeuvre, extensive as it is, there are not too many of these. (Obviously Five Believers and Trust Yourself spring to mind.)
    As a rather silly opener of an album you might compare it with Rainy Day Women or Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. What is so wrong about occasionally letting our hair down and just have some good old stupid fun? More often than not these are the moments we enjoy ourselves / music / life the most.
    Thank you for taking the time to reevaluate this supposedly ´worst song´and giving me an excuse to play Wiggle Wiggle right now!

    “Bamm… bammm … bammm…!!!” Priceless.

  4. Dharmadude says:

    I recently found myself on a long car trip, with only Under the Red Sky to listen to. And I realized I didn’t dislike it as much as I did the first few times I heard it and dismissed it 20 some odd years ago. it’s a flawed record, for sure, but suffered more from its proximity to oh mercy than it ought to have. i actually liked it quite a bit – more with each subsequent spin.

  5. Martin Cowan says:

    Tony, glad to read your review. Under The Red Sky is probably my favourite Dylan album. Brought up on him by my Dad, and enjoyed the highs and lows over the years. Remember my dad buying Blood on the Tracks when it first came out. When this was released, after the glory of Oh Mercy, I absolutely hated it. But then when I really went back and listened to it properly, I found it to be a fantastic album. I’ve always wondered why Wiggle Wiggle is so slated and Yea Heavy and A Bottle of Bread is so glorified – they are cut from the same cloth!

  6. Richard Keys says:

    I’ve always thought ‘Wiggle Wiggle’, roughly translates to “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” I see the song as an attack on selling yourself, and the 1980s – 1990s ethos that to sell yourself is a good thing. A nursery rhyme? Most of them are not for children either!

  7. pedro says:

    some of the songs on Under a Red sky are written in the style of a nursery rhyme but the subject matter is strictly adult. Wiggle, Wiggle is rude, lewd sex.

  8. Randy Huttle says:

    While it is usually an exercise in fooltility to dissect and analyze Bob Dylan’s lyrics like they do frogs and newts, if visions of Jimmy Swaggart conquer your mind out of time while you “Wiggle Wiggle”, you might like the song more than it likes you.

  9. TonyAttwood says:

    Randy, of course you are entitled to say, “While it is usually an exercise in fooltility to dissect and analyze Bob Dylan’s lyric” but it would be polite surely, to give some evidence or at least a logical theory as to why. There are over 200 reviews on this site, and with over a quarter of a million page views this year, clearly many people find this is an interesting theme worth developing.

  10. Randy Huttle says:

    Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be rude at all and certainly apologize for any offense taken. I was trying to be humorously helpful with “Wiggle Wiggle” and that new word just popped into my mind. I just had to use the word somehow. I could have worded my comment better, but I am not going to try.

    Nearly back to the song “Wiggle Wiggle”, as many of my older CDs have been stuck inside of … a broken 300 disc Megaplayer for quite some time, I had forgotten about “Wiggle Wiggle” but immediately remembered it after hearing the first verse. After the album ended, I searched for “bob dylan wiggle wiggle” and soon ended up here, and posted a comment in haste before exploring your website.

    When “Under the Red Sky” was released, financially oriented US TV “preacher” Jimmy Swaggart had somewhat recently been exposed as having the wiggling loins of the Devil he warned about. If you care to watch and can find on stage performances of Jimmy Swaggart from that period, I know that I, and I suspect Bob, saw a big fat Biblical snake wiggling on stage. And it is rather simple to find more than one still photo of Jimmy Swaggart wiggle while wearing a green suit and a flashing ring such as a gypsy might wear in Bob’s mind while JS vomits fire from Hell. I don’t recall any specific claim about raising the dead from Jimmy Swaggart, but I do think that verse fits in well with my interpretation of the song.

    Now I have not tried to interpret the line “Wiggle like a bowl of soup”, as I think that was a convenient rhyme, and I do not think that convenient rhymes are rare in Bob Dylan’s songs. After bouncing from Wikipedia to here, that was the verse in my mind when it concocted “fooltility”.

    So as you can read, I have dabbled with interpreting Bob Dylan’s songs. Reading that some “critics” consider “Wiggle Wiggle” to be one of Bob Dylan’s “worst songs” is what motivated me to leave a comment. With my interpretation, I consider “Wiggle Wiggle” to be well done, especially since it is relatively short song.

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